This may be the worst of times to be writing a new Farm Bill. With commodity prices and farm income at record levels, it is hard to make urban legislators far removed from agriculture understand the need for safety net programs.
And with the mood of Congress set firmly on "cut, cut, cut," it may be very hard for agriculture, which has been in the crosshairs for decades, to win the battle to save programs critical to producers.
Getting answers to help in that process was a top goal when Sen. Pat Roberts, ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, urged his chairwoman, Sen. Deborah Stabenow (D-Mich.) to hold the second field hearing on the 2012 Farm Bill in Kansas. The first was held in Michigan May 31.
Roberts laid out the reality of the ag economic impact in the state: $15 billion a year in cash receipt and 23 million acres producing corn, wheat, soybeans, grain sorghum, cotton, sunflowers, potatoes and a handful of other specialty crops. Kansas, he said, is home to more than twice as many cattle as people – 2.8 million people and more than 6 million head of cattle.
Stabenow said that her committee has requested that the final decision on programs and policy be made by the agriculture committees in each house. The Senate Ag Committee, which she chairs, has seasoned members, many of whom, like Roberts, have chaired Ag Committees of the past.
"We will look at everything," she said. "We will be looking at what can be combined, streamlined and made more efficient and effective. What I want to hear from you is what programs are essential to you. We have to make tough decisions and if we don't someone else will make them for us.
"We know the Farm Bill will look different. So what tools do we need? What should an effective safety net look like? What doesn't work? Those are the answers we're looking for," she said.
Roberts said it is essential to come up with a Farm Bill that works for the wide variety of farmers in Amercia.
"I've been to Michigan to learn more about the specialty crops that are the major agricultural products there," Roberts told a crowd of more than 500 people who turned out on Aug. 25 for the hearing. "Now it's her turn to come to Kansas and learn more about the commodity crops that are grown here."
Or, in the case of the brutal summer of 2011, the crops that Kansas farmers have attempted to grow.
On the eastern border of the state, the Missouri River floods have inundated thousands of acres of farmland, while the western two-thirds of the state has broiled in relentless heat and the worst drought in decades.
The day before the hearing, Roberts toured the drought-devastated farm country in Reno and Kingman counties and memories of dry and brittle cornfields and barren pastures were still strong as Stabenow convened the hearing on Aug. 25, south-central Kansas's 46th 100-degree day of the year.
Those conditions just might make it the best of times for showing lawmakers firsthand what kind of devastation Mother Nature can wreak on the best of harvest prospects and for driving home the point that it makes no difference how good prices are if you are the farmer with no crop to sell, Roberts said.
The Senators took verbal and written testimony from 17 witnesses and urged all the farmers in the audience to weigh in with written comments by Sept. 1. The committee has to make recommendations on budget reductions to the Congressional debt-reduction "super-committee" by Oct. 14.
They said they are united in an effort to get the super-committee to give them a number on the budget and let the committee decide which programs are supported and which are reduced or eliminated.
Tomorrow: The resounding Commodity Title message: "Crop insurance is vital; strengthen it, don't cut it."